Transforming a Traditional School into an Immersive Arts Integration School
How do we make school improvement efforts impactful and lasting? Traditionally, school improvement efforts only address academic improvement and fall short in impacting the whole school. Alternately, the arts are often tapped to improve schools yet fall short because they are confined to isolated residencies or subsets of the school population resulting in minimal impact and sustainability. The solution is an immersive and integrated approach where arts education and school improvement happen simultaneously to yield sustainable, transformational results.
This challenge presented itself to an urban school district outside of New York City. Dr. Masone, then principal of a K-5 school, faced declining enrollment, lack of a unifying mission and vision and the possibility of merging with a larger school. In response, the school embarked on a three-year journey to transform from a traditional school to an Immersive Arts Integration model . Knowing that the typical “arts-as-enrichment” model would not yield transformational results, the work was launched around two tenets: creating a sustainable arts integration model and encompassing the entire school in improvement which included a focus on socio-emotional learning, teacher pedagogy, school climate and students with special needs, all in service of student academic achievement. Dr. Katona joined the project as the arts consultant and together the leaders developed a theory of action: if teachers were prepared in the theory and strategies of theatre instruction, then they would embody the work in classrooms and yield improved outcomes and sustainable practice.
- Classroom teachers learned four key theatre strategies: pantomime, walking in space, improvisation and tableaux through intentional and systemic professional development. While these four strategies alone were not revolutionary, training general education teachers to use them to teach other core content was an effective departure from the norm.
- The project focused on addressing arts standards and standards in other core content areas. The arts are the vehicle through which other core content is explored.
- Pedagogical risk taking was modeled, expected and celebrated. Teachers were not asked to master, but rather to attempt strategies presented in weekly coaching cycles. Teachers shared failed and successful lessons with colleagues.
- School arts specialists evolved into coaches. They were included in planning sessions and were viewed as resources and an integral part of the process. This shift elevated the arts specialists and brought their work outside their classrooms.
- The school celebrated learning through arts each six to eight weeks with a presentation for a variety of audiences within the school and community. These curriculum celebrations were held in addition to the typical skill-based concerts and productions.
- All school spaces were transformed. Teachers set up classrooms with presentation and ensemble spaces after virtual and in-person visits to art galleries, dance studios and theaters. They were encouraged to bring the elements into their classrooms to invite creative thinking.
There were a myriad of outcomes as a result of the school transformation. Data analysis showed there was improved comprehension, better story retell and increased word count in writing. Adding kinesthetic components to non-arts core content resulted in improved student behavior. Development of daily ensembles encouraged students’ social-emotional development in that they connected more deeply with one another as a result of risk taking and shared experience. Multilingual learners had increased scaffolds and opportunities for nonverbal participation. After two years, the school was named an Exemplary Schools for Arts Learning by the Arts Schools Network. The work continued through remote learning, and in 2022 they officially renamed the school Integrated Arts Elementary. As intended, the model resulted in a self-sustaining system of pedagogy and outcomes that continued for years.